The career of a storyteller: From rare trout to lynx kittens, Joe Lewandowski reflects on 16 years of writing about Colorado Parks and Wildlife

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Joe Lewandowski with bear cubs.

By Joe Lewandowski
Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Storytellers, often, are relegated to the outside but always trying to look in, constantly hoping for entry into some unique situation or adventure or thought process that functions to make a story compelling, heart-wrenching or, simply, interesting.

I started my formal storytelling career in Colorado as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in Vail in the late 1970s. After more than 20 years writing for four newspapers and a dozen other publications and websites, I tired of the daily deadline grind. That’s when I saw an advertisement for a “Public Information Officer” (PIO) for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

While the job would be a step away from objective journalism, I knew it would offer a unique vantage point for storytelling. Fortunately, my experience proved worthy and in 2005, I landed the position as the PIO for what was then DOW’s Southwest Region, a location of big mountain ranges, vast expanses of public lands, canyons, rivers and, of course, abundant wildlife. I saw this as a story-rich environment.

The job provided the unique position I’d often thought about — being on the inside. I worked alongside biologists, district wildlife managers (DWMs, once called game wardens), wildlife researchers, hatchery managers and later, park rangers and managers. My job entailed asking them questions, explaining their good work to the public and conveying the importance of wildlife and outdoor spaces and recreation to the people of Colorado. For the first time in my writing career, I was working on the same team as my sources. I was focused on positive, one-sided stories — something my journalistic colleagues would likely frown upon.

As I got to know my colleagues, I started hearing about things I’d never known. Sure, I’d always considered myself an environmentalist, but I didn’t know about the importance of the nitty-gritty on-the-ground work being done by dedicated, smart, professional biologists and scientists who care deeply about wildlife. And an extra bonus for me — most of them loved to talk about their work.

In no time, I was going out on the types of adventures I’d dreamed about as a kid. Walking into wild, untrammeled and mysterious locations on the lookout for wildlife.

Consider the subject matter I was given to work with:

Along with three others tracking newborn lynx, I stood on a ridge and looked down onto a hillside thick with trees, fallen logs, boulders and brush. The crew had found the general location of a female lynx thanks to its telemetry collar. The cat’s movements had stopped, indicating that it had made a den and given birth. Our job that day was to find the kittens, assess the litter and record the findings.

The lead researcher, Tanya, said, “OK, let’s find the kittens.”

Looking at the forest tangle, I was incredulous. “Where do we look?” I asked.

Tanya laughed and said, “Under every log and bush and outcrop.” 

An hour later, she yelled out that she’d found the kittens. Three, each a little fur-ball, not much bigger than a coffee cup. The kittens cried and squirmed; and circling us warily but helplessly prowled the mother, issuing low, mournful growls.

And then I got to write a story about that little adventure.

On other occasions, I rode along with DWMs making the rounds along remote roads during hunting season. When we’d pull up to a camp, hunters would happily walk out to greet us and pepper the wildlife officer with questions about where to find the elk. On another ride-along, I observed as a DWM explained to an Oklahoma couple that the location of the two cow elk they’d killed was far from the area described on their licenses. They each had to pay a $1,500 fine, didn’t get to take the meat home and had to admit their guilt.

In early summer one year, I accompanied a crew of about 10 into the Weminuche Wilderness to find native cutthroat trout in a tumbling, 15-foot wide stream. The crew carried “electrofishing” gear, shocked the water and stunned the fish temporarily. Then the aquatic biologists spawned the fish right on the stream bank, placed the fertilized eggs in a container and took them back to the Durango hatchery. The eggs hatched and from a few dozen fish, thousands of progeny eventually emerged and eventually restocked. I learned that the success of natural reproduction by fish is about 1 percent, but nearly 100 percent at a hatchery. Some purists criticize the human meddling, but without our help, there would be very few, if any, native cutthroat trout. Of course, it was humans who screwed up the trout’s habitat in the first place. So, this work on a backcountry stream showed that humans can also right some wrongs.

While I never doubted that most people value wildlife, I learned through this job that deliberate effort is needed to maintain this resource. Thanks to far-sighted conservationists who stepped up in previous centuries to maintain natural systems, latter-day conservationists working for wildlife agencies can dedicate their life’s work to the conservation of wildlife.

One early spring day, I stood on the banks of a small stream that courses from the flanks of the Uncompahgre Plateau toward the Gunnison River. Kevin, an aquatics researcher, explained that this stream often goes dry by mid-summer. Yet three species of native fish — the flannel mouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub — make a run up this stream every year to spawn. Sometimes called “trash fish” because they usually don’t rise to an angler’s lure, Kevin showed me the beauty and uniqueness of these species. These fish have survived for tens of thousands of years and are only found in the greater Colorado River Basin. They battle torrents of icy run-off, survive in silt-filled water and often spend months in muddy pools. The suckers are built like 2-foot long torpedoes, sturdy and streamlined. And Colorado Parks and Wildlife employs aquatic biologists to make sure these fish survive the continuing onslaught of physical insults humans throw at them.

I wrote about that, too, hoping that readers would gain an understanding of why we can’t lose these unique creatures. Because if we do, something of ourselves will die along with them.

I’ve crawled into dens with bears — they, fully sedated — while researchers examined cubs and changed GPS collars on the sows. A couple of times, I was enlisted to hold 3-pound cubs underneath my jacket to keep them warm while the researchers finished their work. They whined and growled and squirmed and clawed and I fell in love with them immediately.

Another day, I squeezed into a tight opening of a cave located in a small canyon in western Colorado. Hidden in the back were lion cubs. As I crawled, I listened to Ken, a mountain lion researcher. “We have a collar on the mother and we know from the GPS signal that she’s far away hunting and eating. That’s a good thing, because if she showed up while we were taking her cubs she’d turn us into confetti.”

I paused as I considered our vulnerability. But I had every reason to trust Ken, who had worked for three decades studying mountain lions. We pulled three cubs from the cave, placed small radio collars on them (they’d rot and fall off in a couple of months), collected blood for the genetic information it would provide and returned the cubs safely to the cave.

I’ve been along for the capture of pronghorn, turkeys, deer, elk and bighorn sheep. I’ve placed my hands on them and felt the magnificent fur, muscles and bones of these animals that spend all of their living minutes in the wild lands of Colorado.

All my stories, of course, weren’t about adventures. I also wrote about meetings and proposals and other mundane and necessary business to which a public agency must attend.

The great stories, the interesting stories, however, I was always ready and willing to tell. At parties and in grocery stores, people would ask me about some critter they saw or about something I had written. On chairlifts or in random meetings in bars or along trails with strangers, I was often asked what I did for a living in Durango. As soon as I started explaining my job, it was always apparent that people wanted to know more. I was happy to tell them a quick story and proud to say that I worked for an agency that was dedicated to taking care of wildlife and land and water.

Now, however, after 16 years with the agency, 45 years in Colorado and 67 years as a resident of this planet, I am taking my leave from this job. I feel honored and privileged to have been hired to tell my fellow Coloradans all these stories.

I owe a great debt to all the people in this agency who took the time to explain the intricacies of how a ptarmigan molts, how a bear knows when to go into hibernation, the value of wetlands, how to reestablish native trout and more and more. To those who have read my stuff, I thank you. And rest assured that there are many more stories to come from the next lucky writer who gets this job.

Joe Lewandowski retired as o the PIO for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest Region on April 30.